By Shilpa

This is the second in a series of blogs reporting back from the Symposium on the Science of Singing, Well-being and Health in London, September 2014 (see the first blog here). This blog is about a presentation by British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar.

When I think about singing through history, I make the assumption that our ancestors have always sung. Granted, they would probably have turned up their noses at the likes of One Direction, but singing must always have been part of human culture in some way, right? Then I heard Robin Dunbar speak and my thinking backflipped. What about our ancestors before modern humans? If there was a time when singing didn’t exist, how and why did we start doing it? As a community song leader, Robin’s theory of the evolution of singing helped me connect the dots and explore why I do the work I do. What he says is worth sharing.

So, this is Robin Dunbar’s theory as summarised by me. As monkeys and primates evolved over the centuries, their brain sizes increased. As there brains got bigger over time, they could cope with more complexity. And the size of the social groups they formed and hung out increased in line with their brain sizes. Bigger groups were a good thing – they meant increasing safety for our ancestors. Dunbar puts the optimum group size for humans at around 150, which is ‘Dunbar’s number’ (which he claims is true even in a world where we have hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’)

Relationships in groups need nurturing to ensure group members get on well together – promoting greater harmony and safety together. Primates primarily bond their groups through a network of grooming (like stroking or massage from our perspective). They spend a lot of time grooming each other in pairs. Both groom-er and groom-ee experience a boost of endorphins within the nervous system, which has an opiate-like effect. Grooming brings about a natural high of relaxation and contentment. Everyone involved enjoys it and it builds trust between community members.

P1030640Grooming and having a laugh at Monkey World © Shilpa Shah

So grooming feels really good. But it also takes up a lot of time. It’s a one-on-one activity, where personal attention is crucial to make it feel good. As Dunbar said ‘If you have ever sat in the back of a cinema and tried to cuddle two people at the same time, you know that may cause some friction’. He suggests that as group sizes increased during evolution, there just wasn’t enough time in a day for everyone to groom enough other group members to keep good relationships between the whole group. One has to gather food, sleep etc. after all. Modern humans would need 3 hours a day of grooming to bond our-sized groups. A new and more efficient way of bonding groups was needed.

Robin believes our ancestors came up with the following solutions for new ways of bonding their groups together:

  • First came laughter. We give our lungs and diaphragm a workout and release those feel-good endorphins and we can do it as a group.
  • Then came singing. And then other music forms.
  • Language came later.

Like grooming, singing triggers the activation of endorphins which produce relaxation and contentment, and therefore trust in a group. Singing together in a group increases the effect of wellbeing (as anyone who sings in a group will tell you). This has also been observed in group dancing – which might explain why songs with actions are always popular in my singing workshops. It also helps explain my deep love for cheesy Bollywood choreography! Note – actually doing music is key. Listening to a performance also feels good, but has less of an impact on how we feel.

Robin guesses that our ancestors first started singing around half a million years ago. And we can see how singing bonds groups today. Even in the UK, where we seem relatively hesitant about community singing compared to some other societies, we are brought together by football chants, folk songs, religious hymns and bhajans, and singing happy birthday over candles and cake.

My Heart Sings workshop participants often tell me that the connection with other people is the main thing that brings them back each week. In Steph’s recent blog about My Heart Sings workshops, she says ‘Instead of the usual averted gaze and complete lack of acknowledgement I was used to when going to events or meetups in London, I was greeted with smiling faces and welcomed like an old friend.’

Bernice Johnson Reagon from the wonderful all-women singing group Sweet Honey In the Rock said, ‘to this day, I don’t understand how people think they can bring anybody together without a song.’

In a society where we have huge networks, but often little sense of real community, singing groups are playing an ancient role of encouraging belonging and happiness. So treasure your local singing group, wherever you are – your endorphins will thank you for it 🙂

May 14 busking 1Some of the lovely women of My Heart Sings – those who sing together, smile together! © Shilpa Shah

PS – The production of endorphins through singing has been found to help increase pain thresholds and all sorts of other impressive impacts for people with various health conditions. I’ll explore this more in the next blog..

PPS- There are other relevant evolutionary theories too (eg summarised here) .